The Urban-Rural Divide…Elsewhere

I’ve posted before about the urban/rural divide, and why it’s politically consequential.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal quoted Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, for the proposition that the differences in the United States aren’t really “red versus blue” but “urban versus rural.” That observation has been echoed widely, as the differences between residents of rural and small-town America and those who live in urban areas have become steadily more pronounced.

Religion–a historically important generator of conflict– is one such difference: urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them. (Attitudes on social issues reflect that difference: rural residents are far more likely to consider homosexuality a sin and to oppose same-sex marriage, to oppose abortion, and to support restrictions on immigration.)

A survey by Pew in 2018 found white rural residents twice as likely as white urban dwellers to insist that they don’t enjoy a social advantage by reason of their skin color.

Rural residents are more likely to be older and poorer and more likely to be isolated than urban dwellers. They are also far more likely to be Republican.

Despite the fact that some 80% of Americans now live in cities, the structure of America’s electoral system continues to significantly advantage rural voters, especially but not exclusively through the operation of the Electoral College. Whether what is called the urban/rural split is defined simply as city versus country, or by a more complex cultural regionalism, those ubiquitous red/blue maps attest to the measurable and consequential differences between urban and rural Americans.

This situation, according to the Washington Post, is not exclusively an American phenomenon.A report from 2016 suggests a very similar state of affairs in Europe.

What shaped European politics over the past two years might appear to some like a revolution of rural Europe rising up against the establishment and economic winners.

Support for Britain leaving the European Union was highest in rural areas in the June referendum.

It is also “rural France” that might empower far-right politician Marine Le Pen next year.

In Germany, the urban establishment underestimated the backlash the recent influx of refugees would provoke in less densely populated areas.

In rural northern Europe, the article tells us, younger, better educated men and women have moved to cities to find employment. That statement also describes states like Indiana, where small towns continue to empty out as young people depart for more densely populated cities.

Even in federal republics like Germany, which lack the dominance of one single capital city, an urban-rural disconnect is increasingly visible. Whereas Berlin has attracted foreigners and Germans alike, its surrounding areas have seen a rapid demographic change. Supermarkets have closed, and bus connections were canceled as a result. It is a pattern which can be observed all over Europe at the moment.

The description of those who have stayed in Europe’s rural areas is familiar here too: a feeling of being left behind has replaced the pride of place that used to characterize small villages and hamlets. Rural residents exhibit a sense of abandonment and replacement that the article suggests is largely responsible for the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit.

When people feel left behind, they want someone to blame.

And as these native Britons feel trapped with no economic future, they see images of an increasingly diverse population in the cities. To many Brexit supporters, concerns over an influx of immigrants were among the reasons they voted to leave the E.U.

In Germany, similar feelings have created a different kind of backlash: anti-immigration protests and anti-refugee attacks. Economically distressed eastern Germany has seen the vast majority of those attacks. That region, an area which consists of five states excluding Berlin, accounts for only about 15 percent of the German population. Yet the majority of anti-immigrant attacks took place in the country’s east in 2015.

In one way, it’s comforting to recognize that we aren’t the only country experiencing this problem. But while “misery loves company,” commiserating with that company doesn’t solve our problems.

A country with a functioning government would work to address the problems of rural decline–try to ameliorate the isolation and frustration that feed racial and ethnic resentments. But we don’t have a functioning government.

We have an administration that needs to keep fueling those rural frustrations and resentments. They are the sentiments that motivate the GOP base.


  1. It isn’t just this administration that keeps fueling the rural/urban divide and hatred of immigrants. The Republican members of Congress and most state legislators rely on campaign money from the corporate interests that want to keep wages low, rid our country of affordable health insurance, maintain skyrocketing drug prices, union/employee protections and bargaining power of any kind, remove any industry regulations that protect the environment and health and safety for the populations because those regs infringe on profit margins.

    It is all about corporate profits and power. Their greed is insatiable.

    Republicans keep harping on Free Markets while they continuously make deals behind closed doors in DC and in the State legislatures to give away corporate subsidies and tax loopholes. Those of us on this blog all recognize they are actually fighting for Corporate Socialism and free markets for everyone else.

    Finally, the (former news) media is now controlled by wealthy corporate interests that continuously push their lies onto the public. Fox Spews should win all of the categories in the big awards shows. It sure would be nice to have a regulation that requires media outlets to actually report only the Facts to be able to call themselves a News station. Opinion stations would have to label themselves as such and could no longer claim to be reporting the news. Yes, I am dreaming….

  2. The population shift from rural areas to urban centers is due to the economy. Large corporations tend to set up operations where they can find workers capable of doing what is required to product what they sell, whether it be widgets or advertising copy. The population densities in cities provide that component of the “means of production.” Rural areas suffer economically because they cannot satisfy the needs of the corporations. That is one of what economists tell us is an inexorable law of economics. Even the agricultural sector is dominated by corporate operations and mechanized operations, that require fewer workers. We are not living in the 19th century any longer, and nostalgia does not take the place of a regular salary.

  3. Nothing like using people’s misery for political gain but you’ve captured exactly what is happening. Gerrymandering takes advantage of the plight as well.

    The great American divide has been happening for a decade. It’s not just jobs attracting the youth to cities. Public transportation and the ability to bike the towns also attract debt-ridden students who cannot afford cars or simply want to reduce their carbon footprint.

    The worst part is it is dividing the Working Classes by turning them against each other instead of them seeing their common economic plight brought on by an Oligarchy hell-bent to maintain power and control of the economy (capitalism).

    Both political parties are captured by the Oligarchy which is why populism drove the 2016 election and will drive the 2020 election. A vote for just Democrats isn’t enough to bring about the change needed for the Working Class and rural dwellers. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.

    Trump’s rant against socialism at the United Nations shows the Oligarchs are scared but it’s either socialism or Fascism — take your pick. Status quo candidates or politicians owned and controlled by the Oligarchy will be defeated by the populist left. How far left depends on the community.

    Conservatives or GOP voters only shoot themselves in the foot at the polls. They resent the wrong people and systems thanks in large part to the propaganda media we have in this country and in Europe. The world is suffering from the effects of late-stage capitalism. Once we know better or become informed, the better our voting becomes. If only the media would discuss the facts but they rely on uninformed “consumers” because they are in the selling business — not the informing business.

  4. I’m not sure exactly what rural dwellers want. In many areas there are retraining programs being offered, but not being used by too many of those who feel stuck. it seems they want to do what they’ve always done and get what they’ve always gotten, even if nobody wants to buy what they make.

  5. Well, churches were THE element of community in our rural areas from the start of our nation’s move west. They fostered the so-called conservative attitudes that allowed Republicans to exploit their fears and natural ignorance about how government works and what the vision of our nature was/is. I’m not being judgmental as much as just stating a natural process over time.

    Thing is, by voting Republican so much, these rural and poorer areas are denying what they need their government to do for them. The rural, red states also defy what Republicans used to stand for: rugged individualism, no subsidies, low debt, fiscal restraint, etc. That is now, of course, out the window. Even Texas, one of the richest states (unless you’re among the league-leading pockets of poverty) takes in more Federal money than it pays out. And yet there is a significant element there that wants to secede from the Union (again) and refuses to take Federal money for education improvement.

    To my way of thinking, that sort of hypocrisy and backwardness can ONLY come from a con job that the so-called conservative, right-wing Republican party gets away with because they’ve invaded the churches with their lies and false promises. Then, once they’ve gotten themselves elected to public office, they can do the bidding of their rich donors.

    How terribly sad….

  6. Generally rural folks are those who never left the country to move to the city. What people didn’t realize until now is that staying where they were most comfortable locked them into fading places but also times.

    They want their times back! There is no chance their times are coming back though. They’re trapped in a never never land and struggling to adapt.

  7. Just considering the infamous pot hole situation in Indianapolis, I see a vast difference in quality of repairs between Warren and Franklin Townships, both part of the district of City Councilor David Ray. Warren Township patching is done hole-after-hole, and done repeatedly on the same streets through business, strip malls and low to middle income residential areas. Driving south on Franklin Road past Brookville Road; strip patching has been done in that rural area past large farms, this year with empty acres of land due to standing rain for months. The few homes are on large lots and there are a few obviously expensive residential developments…obviously the quality street repair has been done where there are higher income residents. Those areas have less travel than business and residential areas where high traffic patterns are the norm.

    Our City-County Council bears a great deal of responsibility for disbursement of local tax dollars; it appears to me that city dwellers, look at near-downtown Indianapolis, are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to all areas of infrastructure maintenance and repair.

  8. There are some spots of hope out there…

    Some trends could be leveraged to bring young people to rural from the cities: ability to work from anywhere, access to nature, access to farm products, etc. But…those folks are not religious, not conservative and might well be viewed as “the other” (see “hippies” of an earlier generation).

    One real issue remains with the youth of current rural folks – we need more support of family farms; support for ag entrepreneurs, support for development of rural tourism for recreation/history/artisan arts, etc.

    A “silver bullet”, if implemented carefully, would be supporting the integration of immigrant groups. Many are socially conservative and religious. They are hardworking and entrepreneurial. There are some good case studies of where this has worked in “dying” rural areas in Europe, for example:

  9. It isn’t all bleak….

    There are some spots of hope out there…

    Some trends could be leveraged to bring young people to rural from the cities: ability to work from anywhere, access to nature, access to farm products, etc. But…those folks are not religious, not conservative and might well be viewed as “the other” (see “hippies” of an earlier generation).

    One real issue remains with the youth of current rural folks – we need more support of family farms; support for ag entrepreneurs, support for development of rural tourism for recreation/history/artisan arts, etc.

    A “silver bullet”, if implemented carefully, would be supporting the integration of immigrant groups. Many are socially conservative and religious. They are hardworking and entrepreneurial. There are some good case studies of where this has worked in “dying” rural areas in Europe, for example:

  10. I grew up in a small town in Indiana. In the 60’s, this town had a thriving hospital, manufacturing jobs, and large family farms that made it economically viable. I left to practice nursing here in Indianapolis. Many of my peers left as well. Now this town is struggling as are so many towns across our country.

    I could see the stars at night where I lived as a child. I can’t in Indianapolis. I sometimes miss the sense of community I had there. For me the question is, how do we get creative people interested in creating new business opportunities in small towns? How do we support their small businesses and family farms? How do we have a conversation about abortion and the LGBT community? And are we brave enough to listen to them now? Do they not also have a right to their voice, to their concerns?

    If democrats do not know how to appeal to people who live in rural communities, we will continue to struggle with winning elections due to politicized gerrymandering and the electoral college. Somehow we have to learn how to meet in the middle, to compromise. Somehow we have to help small towns revitalize themselves. And why do I assert their rights? Because my fellow citizens many of their sons and daughters are the ones who serve in our military. Many of them are willing to sacrifice themselves for us, for our democracy. And if you take the time to visit the cemetery of a small town, you will see small American flags waving over the graves of many veterans who are buried there.

  11. “… the structure of America’s electoral system continues to significantly advantage rural voters, especially but not exclusively through the operation of the Electoral College.”

    There are a lot of ways of parsing Presidential election results and I think the use of the electoral college as a whipping post is over stated. Clinton won nationwide by a “plurality” of votes which can be explained by her margin in California alone. So, should we say California’s misplaced votes for Clinton determined the election?

    Trump won 7 of the 10 largest states and Clinton won 7 of the 12 smallest.

    Clinton lost key large swing states is the best description of what transpired.

    I know this will draw a lot of ire, but the Electoral College is not going away as it is in the Constitution, and a candidate’s campaign strategy should reflect this reality.

  12. I recently left the city to move to a rural community an hour away. What was I looking for? Quiet (not under the flight path anymore)! A dark night sky. An affordable smaller home. Room to grow more of my own food.

    I work freelance and remote – a Lot of young educated tech folk do too. This whole sector of the economy could re-inhabit our rural towns if there was decent internet infrastructure, which there is not in many places. Kinda like someone wants rural people to be uninformed.

    Who else could be here? Artists (lots of them are here) and a new generation of farmers coming from the urban food movement (lots of CSAs here). But we have NO transit options so it can be isolating. We need to do culture-building, to. People here love to attend talks, film screenings… it’s something to do

    How about the 80% start caring about the 20%? Find ways to ensure they have Internet, healthcare, access to food (we worry about food deserts in low income city communities that have bus lines but never think of rural poor who have to drive an hour to a real grocery store).

    Then instead of thinking we can turn red to blue, get blue out of the city and across the whole state.

  13. Robin, I too grew up in a small village though in NY. Those places and times really have been abandoned by people for sure but also businesses, education, entertainment (except what passes for entertainment on TV), infrastructure, progress, culture, etc. My childhood there was idyllic but the reality for those left behind is pretty bleak but apparently addictive at least for some.

    I don’t see solutions on the horizon because most human efforts now are focused on cities where the people and money and opportunity and culture have moved to.

    In some ways the country side will become our new slums but less crowded than city slums.

    Unfortunately when we recover back to one person one vote things might even get worse for the folks back home.

  14. we have alot of agreement on this,thanks, but question,what is the final plan of trump/mcconnels nitemare? goverment via wall street is my view. no democracy,

  15. What exactly is “Rural America”? Here in central Indiana, Marion County as a whole is reliably Democratic. The collar counties are reliably Republican. I would certainly not call the collar counties around Marion County “Rural”. True, there is farmland but the cities in these collar counties far out weigh in terms of population Ma and Pa Kettle out on the farms.

    The collar counties by any measure are wealthier compared to Marion County.

    Does this mean that at a certain level of income you turn into a Republican and move to a collar county??? What is it that binds Republicans in the wealthy collar counties around Marion County to the overwhelming number of Republicans in the poor rural counties in Indiana???

    You could say that the policies of the GOP favor the wealthy, which may account for the Republican majority in the collar counties – if so then – how do you explain why the poor counties of Indiana vote in huge numbers for Republicans???

  16. time after time,amy zimet,further,,,via commondreams .org…
    theres a pic of mcconnel dressed in soviet guard uniform,in red square,,,the story is time lined,and a look at the past,and possible future..

  17. I grew up on a farm. Many of my peers elected to remain in rural environments come hell or high water. They would cite the usual cliches as their reason: sense of community, less traffic, etc.; but those are not their real reasons for staying in Podunk.

    Their real reason for staying in a rural environment is: they don’t like to solve problems. Problems are plentiful wherever population is dense; and rural people don’t like to adjust to change, and change is constant in the cities.
    The problems in rural areas are simpler than problems in cities. Rural problems have fewer layers, require less subtle solutions, and are entangled in less complications, and the solutions have to satisfy fewer interest groups.

    Rural people could not voice those reasons, nor would they if they could. Such reasoning reveals their intellectual laziness and their refusal to grow.

    My father was one of the rural intransigents. He loved problems that were simple enough that they could be solved with muscle and sweat. When a problem on the farm begged an intellectual solution, he deliberately attacked it with muscle and sweat, and did it in the hot sun instead of in the shade, in the wind and rain and snow and ice instead of indoors, and he could cite Bible verses that seemed to back him up. My father was a democrat who thought like a republican.

    During this country’s western migration, those who moved west were hardy folk, like my father, not much afraid of anything, but they were petrified of something. That frightening something was COMPLEXITY, which is inherent in densely populated places. Their descendants are still petrified of complexity.

  18. Monotonous – the fact of affluent collar counties voting Republican has a long history – the question is whether Trump has changed it
    On a related note, you remind me of that old (1962 or 1963) Allan Sherman satirical song “Harvey and Sheila”, with the line “traded their used MG for a new XKE, switched to the GOP, that’s the way things go”

  19. Rural dominance of Indiana polities and governance is no in danger of being eclipsed by urban areas. Nor will Presidential politics be giving equal voice to urban areas in elector selection.

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